The Return-to-Work Movement is Well Underway. But What About the Employees Who Never Left?

As the world continues to open back up, customer-facing employees are feeling a new type of anxiety amidst changing mandates and behaviors – all while weathering a labor shortage that has left them overworked, tired, and stressed. During this new stage of recovery, how should companies be thinking about engaging with this important stakeholder group to continue to motivate them, reward then and perhaps most importantly, retain them?

After a clarion call from many in the public and private sector for a return to day-to-day normalcy, many workers are resuming their pre-pandemic routines: traveling back to the office, riding public transit mask-free and gathering in large groups at restaurants.

However, as the world reopens, there is a special cloud of angst hovering above employees in hospitality and retail jobs who meet customer needs face-to-face.  A “return-to-work” marks a starkly different reality from office workers and the service workers who support them.

From day one of the pandemic, this group has experienced unprecedented change – from shifting vaccine and mask mandates to ornery customers refusing to comply with those mandates. Some customers are unhappy with the service they are getting even though the staff shortages behind them are caused by the ongoing unprecedented tight job market.

The confluence of these factors fostered a wave of employee activism during the pandemic’s peak, leaving employers scrambling for solutions. And now, after two years of navigating COVID-19 with the threat of future variants still looming, these workers are returning to a bustling yet severely strained work environment that could spur even more frustration.

So, what should companies do to avoid potential employee unrest during these times? Here are five tips to help meet workers’ needs:

  1. Let employees be heard
    Don’t presume you know what employees want – especially with the recent shift in worker priorities that have come alongside the pandemic. Employers must create space for employees to speak and be heard. Consider creating specific time where employees can connect with managers or conduct surveys where employees can share ideas for a better workplace. The more companies listen, the better they can align on ways to improve employee sentiment.
  2. Turn your insights into action
    After hearing from workers, consider what changes can be made that align with company culture and values. A shift from the status quo starts with four key steps – listening, planning, acting, and communicating. Often companies make statements without having committed to an action. That could make any communication feel hollow and out-of-touch with workers’ needs.
  3. Offer employees insight into the decision-making process
    With each turn of events in the pandemic, companies had to take in new information and make decisions that impacted their employees. When changes loom, employees want to know that thoughtful deliberations are underway, and how they are being accounted for in the process. Once decisions are made, the company must communicate the reasons behind those decisions and the effect they will have on their workforce.
  4. Use multiple channels to communicate changes to employees
    Employees are constantly gathering information from several sources including news, blogs, and social media. The worst place for any customer-facing organization to be is on the outside of those conversations without the proper tools in place to engage employee audiences. At a minimum, companies should be prepared to make use of corporate social media channels, employee newsletters, executive social channels, and blogs to keep employees informed and engaged. Companies should be mindful that employees seek to fill a vacuum of information with other potential sources – and they should get it from their employer first.
  5. Monitor the landscape for new developments within the industry
    In many cases, first-movers in the industry can inspire ideas among employees and fuel their workplace wants. Companies can prepare for this by setting up a monitoring system that extends beyond their own walls. This intel will prove valuable in preparing for potential employee demands that could soon transform into activism if left unaddressed. In addition to monitoring outside the business, watch out for internal signs of discontent, like petitions, company hashtags, politician outreach, new Slack channels. If recognized early, there is an opportunity to turn a walkout threat into a conversation before activism takes place. Often it is best to engage early and directly – speaking with key individuals one-on-one.

The pandemic has ushered in new expectations around worker safety, public health, and civility – all of which can blossom into activism or be a hallmark of positive employee-employer relations in customer facing environments.

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